Egypt’s Identification Crisis: Islamists in Tahrir

An Islamist protester in Tahrir on Friday

The massive protest in Tahrir Square in Cairo yesterday was certainly an eye-opener. The day was marked as a “Day of Unity” (after secular protesters refused to engage in the proposed “Day of Sharia,”) but it became evident after hundreds of thousands of Islamists, notably from the ultra-conservative Salafi groups, descended on the center of Cairo demanding an Islamic state and the imposition of Sharia law. The mass numbers of Islamists dwindled as many left to return to their homes outside of Cairo and the square was retaken by the secular and liberal protesters that had long-held the square. The demographics of Friday’s protests clearly marked a split in the protest movement that can only create more obstacles for the Egyptian people towards real progress and change.

The post-revolutionary road in Egypt is seemingly bifurcated into two concurrent and parallel paths. The first deals with long-term comprehensive reform that must take place in order to secure true freedom and equality for the Egyptians while the second path focuses on the logistics involved in managing a country after a revolution. The former deals with issues such as comprehensive reform of the intrusive security forces that haunted Egyptians throughout the Mubarak era as well as a shift in the economic priorities of the government (including a crackdown on the culture of corruption) to improve the lives of the millions of impoverished Egyptians. The latter path is a fight to determine the nature of the post-Mubarak government, including when and how elections should be held and how a new constitution should be written.

The army of Islamists in Tahrir yesterday is the manifestation of a severe division of the people along the second path – a division that will certainly have long-term consequences that have yet to become clear. The massive show of strength among the Islamists, though, was more than simply a push for the establishment of an Islamic state. Despite its importance (and the counter-protests last night by secularists was just as important,) it is unclear just who exactly who came out on top of this “Day of Disunity.” Some thoughts:

  • The Islamic movement, including the hardcore Salafi groups as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, has been accused of siding with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) against the revolution in allowing the continuation of many of the pre-revolution practices of the Mubarak regime. For weeks, the religious parties have not participated in the continuing protests in Tahrir while praising SCAF for its work governing the country, despite the lack of real change. The calls for an Islamic state that were heard abundantly yesterday demonstrated an alternative vision for the long-term future of Egypt (the first track described above). A state based on Sharia law – a demand heard from a variety of Salafi and Wahabi protesters yesterday – is run by a strong central government that is omnipresent in the lives of its citizens to ensure moral rigidity and it thus incompatible with true democracy. Consequently, the long-term fundamental reform of the Egyptian political establishment would look far different under an Islamic state. Predictably, then, the protesters yesterday were far less worried about the lack of progress on security sector reform than their liberal and secular counterparts.
  • Speaking of the odd link between SCAF and the Islamist movements, many have accused SCAF of using the protests as a warning to the west and liberal protesters of being over-anxious to transition to a democracy: should SCAF be pushed out of power to quickly, the Islamic movements would easily fill the resulting void. This is obviously a reiteration of the long-tie Mubarak threat that the ex-president was the only thing preventing an Islamic and radical Egypt. As Washington continues to push for an end to the stagnation that has plagued SCAF, the interim goverment may have encouraged the Salafi movements to ensure its role as manager of the transition. Zeinobia writes:
We must take in consideration that what is taking place currently at Tahrir square can be a message from the SCAF to the West especially to the States using the old Islamist boogyman to scare them from the consequences of having a real democratic life in Egypt. Some protesters currently are holding the photos of Omar Abdel Rahman and Osama Bin Laden.
  • Likewise, the loud voice of the more extreme parties, including a variety of Salafis, Gamaa Islamiyya, and even the Wassat party, have made the Muslim Brotherhood seem far more moderate than it did on Thursday. While the Ikhwan were present during the Friday protests, the Brotherhood reportedly withheld calls  for Sharia law and apparently tried to moderate between the Islamists and the few liberals and secularists that were present. Immediately, the political spectrum in Egypt shifted to the right and the Brotherhood woke up on Saturday a more moderate party in the eyes of the world. Steve Negus, at The Arabist, notes that although the Brotherhood stands with the Salafis against the idea of “supra-constitutional principles,” it has denounced the “Salafi’s Islamist slogans.”
  • Despite the comparative shift towards the middle by the Muslim Brotherhood, the group has effectively separated itself from both the more extreme Islamists as well as those on the left. By refusing to participate in the more extreme calls of the Salafis, the MB has shown that it is clearly more moderate and acceptable than the extreme right. Yet by participating in the protest, the Brotherhood proved that it is far from siding with the secular movement. The group remains the most well-organized political party and stands to perform well in the upcoming elections (whenever they are), but has demonstrated its differences from both the radicals and the secularists.
  • While the protest has demonstrated the split between the Islamists and liberal parties, comes in the immediate shadow of events proving just how dangerous this split could be. On Friday, an Egyptian soldier was killed by the radical Takfir group and two Christians were killed just south of Cairo. In the south of the country, Salafi protesters beat up a group of protesters from a communist party and hard-line Salafis fired rocket-propelled grenades in the Sinai.
  • Finally, the mobilization of such a large number of extreme Islamists may help unify the various secular and liberal movements that have so far greatly disagreed with each other. Of course, the left could blow this chance for unification, but that may be the only silver lining.

Overall, the protest – which Negus of The Arabist called “one of the half dozen largest Tahrir “million” rallies since January” – demonstrated the complexity of the post-revolutionary transition. While many considered the protest to be an ambush by the Islamists, nearly every party used the protest to send a message. Transition to a functioning government is clearly going to be a difficult task for Egypt. The difficulties of the near- (elections/constitution) and long- (economic and security reform) term were evident in the composition of Friday’s mass protest. The Egyptian people are definitively split and the future path of the revolution has perhaps never been as hazy.

Photo from Hossam el-Hamalawy (aka Arabawy)

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